Gluten-free, sugar-free and truth-free?

by | 10 Jan, 2023

This article first appeared in The Financial Mail/ 22 December 2022.

As supermarket aisles become busier, a new study shows that
young South Africans will pay more for healthy food, but do not necessarily trust food labels and “health brands”.

Marketing and research agency Red Fox Insight, which conducted the survey among people aged 18 to 44, says health brands and eco-friendly products are entering mainstream outlets, with the bigger retailers offering in-house health products.

Nearly half the respondents reported having tried to learn more about healthy products, while 40% said they regularly read labels — but 14% of these said they found labels hard to understand or even misleading. The product labels they scrutinised most closely were dairy, juices and beverages, tinned products and processed foods.

Marilu Smit, co-founder and quantitative research director at Red Fox Insight, tells the FM: “If a brand approaches their labelling, packaging and marketing in a way that feels authentic and honest to the consumer, rather than pushing vague ‘health benefits’, it goes a long way to earning customer trust.”

According to a separate study by research company Global Consult, food and beverages is the most trusted sector, with about seven in 10 adults having faith in manufacturers.

But the data also found that while consumers tend to have long-term relationships with food and beverage brands, they do not hesitate to switch when that trust wanes.

Factors that can cause consumers to lose confidence in a brand include a decline in product quality, an increase in price, or the fact that a company stands for a cause they disagree with.

But why the local scepticism about health food labels? Smit says it links back to dishonest or misleading statements. For instance, terms such as “less sugar” are confusing. Less than what, the consumer wonders.

truth free?

“Organic” is another term that can lead to increased confusion or unhealthy eating. Smit says an organic chocolate or cookie remains a chocolate or a cookie. Similarly, gluten-free products are beneficial mainly for those with gluten intolerance or coeliac disease. Some gluten-free products are made with refined tapioca flour and potato starch, which have no fibre and minimal nutritional benefits. 

Smit believes dishonesty arises from clever marketing tactics and leaving things open to consumer interpretation. For example, when a label says the product may help with a certain health condition or preference, a short, punchy phrase will prominently proclaim this in bold typeface, while the details and caveats will be in the fine print on the back of the package.

Another tactic, she says, is to use the psychology of colour — green denotes natural, eco-friendly and organic, while yellow stimulates appetite and improves mood. Red is known to drive urgency and higher sales, whereas blue conveys freshness and is associated with a healthy Mediterranean diet.

Survey respondents said they expect support from brands and the government on their health journey. Smit says where the government could help is in developing legislation — which is already stringent about what can be communicated — that regulates how nutritional information is shared.

“The minimum font sizes … can be hard to read. And more support in terms of accessibility and affordability of health products is what Gen Z requires.”  

Debbie Gebhardt, chief marketing officer at the Red Fox Group, tells the FM: “The increasing demand for transparent and authentic brands from savvy consumers means that those brands that successfully and honestly achieve this are more likely to secure a loyal following in the long term.

“Truly helping consumers to navigate this incredibly confusing territory can only be beneficial to brands, as consumers are more inclined to trust them. We are clearly moving towards healthier ways of eating and brands that truly deliver on this, while communicating the message effectively, will lead the pack.”

If a brand approaches labeling, packaging and marketing in a way that feels authentic, rather than pushing vague ‘health benefits’, it goes a long way to earning customer trust

Marilu Smit